MIT Press

The Absence of Work by Rachel Haidu is a monograph written in sympathy to the impulses behind the oeuvre of Marcel Broodthaers – a Belgian poet and artist from the mid-twentieth century. The title is introduced as having multiple meanings in relation to the artist’s work, so I’ll list a few here: The focus is on the period when Marcel Broodthaers operated solely as an artist, after having denounced poetry. So the absence is perhaps the absence of poetry, even though both language and poetical sensibilities feature in the art that he then went on to make between 1964-1976. He also declared that art was a step down for him, a muddying of the waters, something he took on for financial gain. So the absence here perhaps is of integrity. Finally the absence which I see, is an absolute lack of an artistic practice. The work is described as being about the making and presenting of art objects, and the dialogue which surrounds them. So in some ways the work (as in labour) seems to be literally absent. In particular, the work seems to exist more as legend and a subject of debate in relation to other contemporary works, as it is not well represented in public collections, nor is there any other book in print (in the English language) about the artist.

The narrative style relies heavily on dialogue with other artists with related contemporary concerns: Brecht, Magritte, Mallarmé. Linguistic analysis is presented with scant assistance for those unfamiliar with the French language – clearly aimed at an audience already familiar with French literature. Similarly, Broodthaers himself seems to avoid readability in his work, and this reveals itself as the main interweaving theme between both author and subject. Enigmatically tortured by philosophical concerns, Broodthaers follows in a peculiarly European tradition typified by the fictional artist Frenhofer in Balzac’s legendary novel The Unknown Masterpiece. The artist’s dominant interests of advertising, of appearance over substance, mean that any idea of a real artistic practice or work ethic disappears. With little reference to the artist’s life, or at least only superficially, this period of the artist’s career relies heavily on contextualization and interpretation, and in this way Haidu provides the work with a new lease of life, which its existence in the world does not alone serve to do.

Not much reason is given why Haidu has taken up this possibly rightly neglected artist apart from to infer or confirm a mythical status upon him, and I feel she fails to give enough background detail to get us inspired too. It is assumed that the reader of this book would already have a basic knowledge of Marcel Broodthaers and his immediate peers – from which basis Haidu then offers further elucidation of an artist who is clearly in need of being understood. Perhaps the deliberately dense and inpenetrable nature of Broodthaers’ concerns, with so many layers of conceptual and intangible dialogue needing to be unravelled, means that Haidu’s book alone is not a sufficient introduction for the casual visitor to this artist’s career. However the thoroughness of this monograph will hopefully enable further discussion on the artist and the concerns relating to the transient period in which he worked, which still persist today in the broader contexts of art as poetical dialectical object, and how that is perceived via all the different institutions which display art – galleries, museums, magazines, books, the internet…